Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Hey, kids. What's more fun than a drone plane?
A swarm of pilotless drone planes linked in a network and equipped with pattern recognition and a fuzzy logic AI system --
Some geewhiz stuff from Defensetech.org --
Drone Swarm for Maximum Harm
(There's a section on the impact of cheap, numerous unmanned aircraft in my book Weapons Grade, now in paperback. Here's one man's vision of what they could mean.)
The awesome future of air power is just around the corner – but the Air Force doesn't want it. That’s the word from Gregory Jenkins of the USAF’s Air Armament Center, self-styled 'heretic' and architect of a concept he calls Just In Time Strike Augmentation (JITSA).
There are many fleeting targets on the modern battlefield that appear briefly and are gone. Think Saddam Hussein’s entourage slipping from one hideout to the next, or a Transporter-Erector-Launcher moving into firing position, or a pickup full of insurgents fleeing after staging a mortar attack. An air strike that takes five minutes to arrive is useless in these situations.
Jenkins’ vision is a networked battlespace with unmanned aircraft maintaining continuous surveillance over a wide area. At the cutting edge is Boeing’s Air Dominator, a 100 lb drone with a 12-foot span which looks like a model aircraft. I interviewed the people involved in the Dominator program two years ago here. Although Boeing say they have nothing new to report, there have been enhancements since then. A special lightweight fuel cell could bring its endurance to over 40 hours, and there’s a sophisticated new vision system for mid-air refueling to increase endurance even further. Each Dominator will carry out up to three attacks using munitions similar to but more versatile than the BLU-108 Skeet . (Some sources claim this has been increased to eight submunitions; Boeing say it’s still three).
Above all it will be cheap, so unlike the solitary MQ-1 Predator drones, Dominator will be used in packs, with a large number of hunter-killers accompanied by a few 'gateway' vehicles providing networked communications and refuelling. Each craft folds away into a pod just eight inches square and four feet long for transport and launch. The plan calls for two dozen or so were to be delivered by an F/A-22 Raptor jet at high speed, but Jenkins is thinking much bigger.
You don’t need a stealthy, high-performance aircraft to deliver something that can travel hundreds of miles on its own. In the JITSA scheme Dominators would be packed in pallets of twenty on a C-17 transport plane, with thirty pallets in all – that’s a total of six hundred drones. A loadmaster would handle the individual release of as many as needed. It’s something akin to a British FOAS concept of replacing bombers with a transport plane packed with palletized cruise missiles.
Once in position, the swarm would maintain air dominance over a wide area, providing both of continuous surveillance and instant reaction. Jenkins estimates that any target in the kill zone could be hit within 2-4 minutes maximum. None of those fleeting targets would escape.
Against a conventional force, Jenkins calls the JITSA system a ‘back breaker’, destroying armor, artillery and air defences on a massive scale, not to mention taking out air forces on the ground.
Dominators can also tackle targets that would normally take much larger munitions by being smarter. You might need a 2000 lb laser guided bomb to destroy a bridge, but a few Dominators can simply destroy vehicles attempting to use it. The bridge is denied to the enemy just as well, and you don’t have to rebuild afterwards.
The system can also neutralize deep bunkers which are invulnerable to the heaviest bombs. Missiles or stores of WMD are not going to harm anyone if they are stuck underground with a swarm of Dominators overhead 24/7, ready to attack anything the minute it emerges. Underground command centres become prisons.
Hey, ain't that great?
Or, what about some loud mouth, barely published SF writer who accidently stumbled on our plan for world domination? He's easily recognized by his gun metal gray 2004 Mustang GTO he's still paying for. We've already loaded his erratic driving pattern into the AI. Yeah. There he is. The swarm is on its way.